Geishas and Google


The Chinese government banned the film Memoirs of a Geisha earlier this month, demonstrating the futility of banning films in a country where 95 percent of DVDs are pirated. In Beijing, The Guardian reports, vendors don't even bother to put the film behind the counter. Other banned faves—Lan Yu, which manages to combine Tiananmen-related social commentary with a homosexual relationship, and the Chinese prostitute-packed Durian Durian—are sold openly next to uncontroversial pirated films, which in my experience will consist mostly of badly dubbed Vin Diesel flicks, South Korean melodramas, and at least a dozen copies of Titanic. No one in any of the media reports seems the least bit concerned about prosecution, and some vendors say they like the bans: They boost sales.

That dynamic—empty bureaucratic gestures that either can't be enforced or were never intended to be, followed by casual mass lawbreaking—isn't limited to film. Explains The Guardian:

Such is the hunger for information and debate on the web that news providers and commentators find ways to circumvent restrictions on sensitive material. Companies such as Microsoft help the authorities block sensitive words, but bloggers and forum commentators quickly introduce slang terms to get around these walls. Some use initials, others mix English and Chinese, still more add a space or exclamation mark in the middle of a sensitive word.

Despite Google's self-censorship, a search for "Tiananmen Square" on its China-based search engine produces several articles and pictures of the 1989 protests on the first page of results….

All of which is worth keeping in mind today during the Google/Yahoo/Microsoft/Cisco show trial about to take place in Congress.